employer wants me to shadow an employee as part of interview process

A reader writes:

A colleague of mine with whom I’ve previously done business recently recruited me for a job at his company. It’s a VP position reporting directly to him. It’s an important position in the company and it would be an awesome job for me. He said he feels like the position was made for me and he’s sure I’ll be a fit, but he needs the rest of his staff to think so, too. Fine, then. Let the process begin. And I do mean process.

First, I came in for an interview with him. Normal. We ended up in the interview for over 3 hours. Relatively normal, considering I know this guy already and the nature of the position.

Then, I came in to interview with HR and another VP. Again, fairly normal. They did go on a bit about the culture and how it’s very different (but good, they assured) from other companies and it takes a special person to work there. Okay, fine. I’m special.

But here’s where it starts to veer off into an episode of The Apprentice. They now want me to come in for a few hours during the day this week and shadow another member of management with whom I’d be working closely, so I can ‘get a better feel for their culture.’ Of course, I’ll have to take time off from my current job for this, but I’ve done that before for interviews, but shadowing? Is this normal at the VP level? I’ve never heard of such a thing and I’ve never been subjected to it at lower levels.

What’s your take on this practice and what it says about the company? Should I do it?

This type of investment of time in the hiring process isn’t necessarily a red flag; it says they care about making sure they’re hiring the right people, which is smart (and will probably impact your quality of life positively if you end up working there). But the shadowing element is unusual — not necessarily troubling, just unusual.

My question would be how this “shadowing” is going to work exactly, and what you’ll really learn from it. Frankly, a better use of the time might be to have you come in and actually do some of the work you’d be doing in the position, or meet with the people who would be your new team. That can give both sides a lot of insight into whether the fit is right. Shadowing, though — well, I’m not sure how much insight that’s going to give you. (I also wonder if they really mean “shadow” in the normal sense — i.e., are you just going to watch this guy answer emails and go to meetings, or is it going to be more interactive?)

On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there who wouldn’t have accepted their current jobs if they’d been able to peek behind the curtain for a couple of hours and see how things really worked at that company. You’re getting that peek, and it’s hard to think that’s a bad thing. In fact, more information when you’re deciding whether or not to spend a huge chunk of your waking hours somewhere for the foreseeable future is pretty much always a good thing.

So I’d say do it, keep an open mind, and see what you think of the whole experience. (And then come back and tell us, because I’m curious now.)

Overall, the biggest point I’d take away from this is that they clearly think there’s something unusual about their culture and that not just anyone will be a good fit. And when people emphasize culture in the hiring process, there’s usually important information there for you — about how happy you’re going to be in that workplace and how happy they’re going to be with you. So pay attention to what they’re telling you, take advantage of the chance they’re giving you to look behind the scenes, and figure out whether or not this place feels right for you.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    How should we ask for time off to interview? Do people say they're going to an interview or just say they have an appointment?

  2. letterstobetsy*

    A few years ago my friend was in a similar situation and had to do a day in the life and shadowing types of situations. She ended up not even being offered a position which was frustrating because she had put in so much effort. I agree with the previous poster how do you request off for so many different interviews and for such long periods of time with a possible no payoff.

  3. Anonymous*

    Just a general note:
    you have "Have you updated to my new RSS feed yet? If not, please do, so that you keep getting my posts:…"
    in your RSS feeds for both the new and old feed. Its also not true of the old feed – it won't go away.

  4. Ask a Manager*

    It actually *will* go away fairly soon because I'm going to switch from Blogger to WordPress … so the old blogger feed will cease to work! Hence my push to get everyone to switch before that happens.

  5. Anonymous*

    Sounds like it might be another "getting work for free in the guise of an interview" scam….

  6. Anonymous*

    AAM is spot on.

    Lots of places are unusual, culture-wise. Few of them know it. Even fewer know it, accept it, and try to deal with it in an interview.

    So you have a huge chance to make sure that (if you want the job) you'll be there in 6 months. But don't blow it. make sure you're not writing one of those "they SAID that we had to work until 10:00 pm, but i didn't really believe them until I started work…" posts.

  7. Anonymous*

    OP here. Thanks, AAM for your response!

    To Anonymous who thinks this is getting work for free, I'll strongly disagree with you on that one. I personally know the CEO and he operates at the highest level of integrity, which is one of the main reasons I took him up on his offer when he initially recruited me. They also are not asking me to do any work while I'm there. He already knows what I can do (he's worked with me before). They just want me to check out the culture and meet with someone with whom I'd be working closely. From what I can tell, it's a less formal "interview."

    After thinking about it more, I agree with AAM. They really do have a unique culture (but it's exactly the kind of culture I'm looking for- it's passionate, creative and healthy, from what I can tell), and that's what they are trying to stress here. I honestly think this is more for my benefit than for theirs. The CEO genuinely cares about his employees and he wants to make sure they are happy and a good fit, which is why (I think) this process exists.

    Had I had the opportunity for a behind the scenes peek at my current job, I wouldn't have taken it. So, I've scheduled my shadow time (which ended up only being a hour or so) for later this week. I will report back on the results!

  8. Anonymous*

    OP again. I should note that I found out some of the additional information after I had sent the letter to AAM and she posted her response. At first, it sounded like they wanted several hours of my time, but with only wanting an hour or two, that's much more reasonable, I think.

  9. Anonymous*

    Same here. If I would have known what I'd be doing in this current job and what kind of monster I'd be working for, I would have declined the offer. Especially since I had a much better offer coming my way at that time.

  10. Liz*

    I'm curious to see what they could possibly be doing that's so special and unique that only very specific individuals could ever hope to join. Eating human heads at work?

    Maybe I'm being too suspicious, but when I hear people being really insistent about a "special culture" it makes me think of the Chicago Times' rewritten employee handbook that said something like, "You will hear offensive things here. Deal with it."

    Some specific political things require long hours and high morale, but isn't it usually the idea to find someone flexible, not rehire the exact same person over and over?

  11. Anonymous*

    I love Liz's comment. A workplace isn't a treehouse where you only invite perfectly compatible friends. A workplace with diverse attitudes and opinions is much more passionate and interesting.

    I think that managers who require a applicants to jump through a dozen hoops to ensure they suit the company's culture are little insecure about said culture.

    A strong, healthy culture can handle a tremendously talented but faintly weird person who never says good morning.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    I'd argue culture IS important, because it's about *how* you approach work. It's not just about whether you say hi in the morning, but about things that really matter, like whether you have a results-orientation, a high bar for your own performance and that of others, whether you operate with transparency, how much of an optimistic attitude you bring toward your work, whether you're someone who's continuously learning or more "fixed," whether you care about real impact versus surface appearances, etc. For those reasons, I think that rigorous screening for cultural alignment during hiring is really important. But yeah, I don't care if you have a weird personality quirk or something.

  13. Anonymous*

    OP again.

    Alison hit it right on the head with her recent comment. The culture at this new place is very transparent, fluid and thrives on creativity and entrepreneurial attitudes. They want me to see it firsthand. I am coming from a very rigid, inflexible, creativity-stiffling corporate box and they just want to make sure I'm okay with moving to something that's the exact opposite.

    For some people, coming in and doing the same thing day in and day out and leaving and arriving at the same time every single day is what they want. It's not like that there (and it's not what I want), but they want me to experience it for a few hours first-hand just so I'm sure.

    Culture is so important! As someone who's worked places where the culture was a terrible match (like my current job), I can appreciate this forethought. From what they've told me, I think I'll be a good match as far as a work-ethic and how it relates to the culture (and so does the CEO), but they just want to be sure (and to make sure I'm sure).

  14. stephanie*

    We have potential employees come and shadow at our agency so we can get a feel for how they operate, whether they will fit in with the team, and to observe how they appoach the work. We always pay the person for their time, even if they end up not being a "good fit" for the position. It is extremely important to us to pick new staff who will easily transition and make good use of their colleagues.

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